US secrets in Iran’s hands: Commando raid an option?

RQ-170 Sentinel
After the CIA lost control of a surveillance drone over Iran, US officials decided against sending a team to retrieve or destroy its remains. However that was before Tehran announced its military was behind the downing of the spy device.

­News of American discussions about a possible covert mission to trace the doomed drone emerged in the Washington Post.

The RQ-170 UAV, dubbed The Beast of Kandahar by some media outlets, was flying over eastern Iran when it apparently malfunctioned and went missing.

Initially, US officials believed the incident had not been detected by Iran. Several options on how to react to the loss of the drone were considered, including sending a cross-border commando raid to either retrieve or destroy what was left of the surveillance craft, and delivering an air strike at the crash site.

However all were deemed too risky, since Tehran would consider such an operation an act of war, should it be discovered. Since the crash happened in a desolate area, the US decided to leave the drone wreckage intact in the hope that it would never be discovered.

"No one warmed up to the option of recovering it or destroying it because of the potential it could become a larger incident," an unnamed official told the newspaper.

But such an operation may be back on the table after Iran announced on Sunday that its military had  downed the spy drone. The US denies that the UAV could have been the victim of an Iranian hacking operation, as alleged by FARS news agency, or brought down by other means. The Americans believe that the crash damaged the drone badly enough that no secret technology could be reverse-engineered from the debris.

Iran, on the other hand, claims that the surveillance device is almost intact. This may prompt an operation by US agents to remove the drone from Iranian hands by destroying or stealing it.

The Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel was developed by the US Air Force in 2007. The UAV was used in a number of reconnaissance missions in the Middle East, most notably during the commando raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. The one lost in Iran was operated by a CIA remote pilot.